Yolanda King was 12 years old and in her Atlanta home on April 4, 1968, when a TV bulletin announced that her father, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had been shot in Memphis. “I didn’t believe it for a long time,” she recalls. “I went to the funeral as an observer. It was like watching a play.” Attallah Shabazz was 6 and in the audience when her father, Malcolm X, was felled by gunfire as he spoke to his followers in Harlem on Feb. 21, 1965. “I had—and still have—flashbacks,” she says. “I would bump into people from the Nation of Islam, and I thought they were going to do the same thing to me.”
But out of their reactions to the assassinations of fathers with divergent philosophies—one the schismatic Black Muslim advocate of racial separation, the other the integrationist Baptist minister and 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner—has flowered a singular friendship and alliance. Yolanda King and Attallah Shabazz, 27 and 24, have formed an eight-member theater troupe, Nucleus, based in New York, whose play Stepping Into Tomorrow is carrying their fathers’ voices to schools, churches and community centers across the country.
In Tomorrow, which they wrote with other company members and is financed by fees, Yolanda plays an unwed teenage mother, while Attallah (the name means “gift of God”) is the talented daughter of divorced parents who can’t focus her life. The play is a riveting rap session on growing up. Says King, who has a masters in fine arts from New York University, “Instead of talking about ‘stay in school, believe in yourself no matter what mistakes you’ve made,’ we show characters who have gone through that in their lives. We show the triumph and completeness they are beginning to find—with the hope that these kids will also find some hope.”
The two women were introduced in 1979 by a mutual friend who interviewed them for Ebony magazine. “We eventually started talking about assassinations and how it affected us,” Shabazz recounts. “To actually talk to somebody who went through that like you did—I haven’t even been able to talk to my sisters about it. They were much younger.” When the two were invited to speak at schools in Hartford, Conn., they decided a play would pack more wallop, and Tomorrow was born.
King has been expressing herself dramatically since 7, when she wrote her first play, and as a teen she caused a rumpus in The Owl and the Pussycat in Atlanta. “I was 15 and a minister’s daughter and I was playing a prostitute,” she says. “People were threatening to leave my grandfather’s church. I was going to be tainted for life.” At Smith College she faced a different dilemma. “Kids in my era were more militant and closer in terms of tactics to Malcolm,” she says. “I didn’t even know Malcolm and I didn’t understand Daddy, so here I was trying to defend something I thought I knew about but really didn’t.” So for the first time she read her father’s books, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. She now splits her time between New York’s Greenwich Village and her mother Coretta’s Atlanta home, where she coordinates cultural affairs at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, of which Coretta is president.
Shabazz, growing up in Mount Vernon, N.Y., also found herself defending her father, “but it didn’t disturb me. In the house he was always the gentle, roll-on-the-floor-with-us kind of person. I did not hear that the white man was a devil. That wasn’t so important as it was for us to know that ‘you are somebody, you are beautiful, you come from a wealth of richness in your people.’ ” A Muslim, she attended a Roman Catholic school for four years, because “my mother thought we needed to participate in other religions and ways of life.” Leaving college due to a lack of funds, she has worked as a drama coach, dancer, model, even a domestic, which left her with great “respect” for the occupation. She now lives in Harlem (her mother, Betty, heads institutional advancement at Brooklyn’s Medgar Evers College) and hopes to reenter college next year.
King believes there was a “conspiracy” to murder her father, and Shabazz is convinced that two of the three men convicted in her father’s death are innocent, while “four guilty men walk the streets.” The women are now penning a play, Of One Mind, about their dads. “When my father was in jail, Malcolm sent him a telegram,” says King. “When Malcolm was killed, Daddy sent Attallah’s mother a telegram. Nobody knows about that. All they hear is, ‘Well, Dr. King said dee-de-dee and Malcolm said dah-de-dah. So that must mean they are completely opposed and don’t like each other,’ which was not the case.” Adds Shabazz, “If they had lived just five more years together…that’s all our families and this country would have needed.”